I have recently traveled to Brazil where I’m from to visit family and took some time off to relax. I went with my 10 year old daughter and travelling with her was a great father-daughter bonding event visiting family and the country where she was also born. We live in the US and we don’t get the chance to travel there that often. Last time I had been to Brazil was in 2016.
After spending a week in Volta Redonda, Rio de Janeiro, visiting my parents we headed over to Praia da Pipa, on the Rio Grande do Norte state, where 10 years ago I lived right after college, got married and where my daughter was born. Praia da Pipa is a beautiful beach town with a few different beaches, bays and a structure for tourism developed in the last 20 years. When I arrived there in 2005 it was already an established destination with mostly foreign tourists as Brazil was still a cheaper destination and the Euro was almost 5 times the Brazilian real which gave these mostly European tourism a big advantage. Pipa’s location is also very convenient for Europeans that back then used to take a 7 hour straight flight from most cities in Europe.
Pipa “started” as a tourist destination in the 90s with surfers going there by bus and cars from Natal. With it’s beautiful beaches with tall cliffs, soon pictures and information about this destination started being posted online specially with the help of one of the first tourism websites of Brazil, pipa.com.br. With the dawn of global communication via the internet, the destination started receiving more and more foreign tourists, more than Brazilians at this point, which used to travel there on charter flights prepared by European companies in partnership with the states government tourism promotion agencies. The infrastructure of hotels and good restaurants, created by early investors was responsible for establishing Pipa as one of the main tourists spots in Brazil.
Already a tourism and real estate destination in 2005
I arrived there late. I was in college, the first years of the 2000s and after that was when I was able to travel and try different places to live. So in 2005 when I arrived there, Pipa was already a rather established destination. There were many hotels, maybe more than 100 at that time and many very good restaurants. The place still had a lot of open spots, open land and lot of opportunities. Foreigners took advantage of that investing and buying a lot of land directly from the natives of that area. Some of the local Brazilians the nearby capitals like Natal, Recife and João Pessoa that already used to go there on weekends, to surf or on short vacations already had invested there in the early 2000s and these did very well with the property valuation brought on by the Europeans.
I remember in 2005 everything was for foreigners. All prices were already geared to the public that was going there. Prime property on the sea front, the main avenues or close to the beach was what the foreigners were after but for Brazilians there was still a lot of opportunities out back. People had the idea that the place wouldn’t grow because there were no jobs and without that there wouldn’t be people moving there, only tourists on vacation. The man power to work on the restaurants and pousadas lived nearby in the access towns between Tibau do Sul and Goianinha.
The influence of Brazilians from the south and other states that moved there, and specially all Europeans and Argentinians, gave the place an identity of upscale stylish summer destination helping to attract more Brazilian and more european tourists. That caused other destinations in the state of Rio Grande do Norte to also benefit from that tourism, and the Real Estate market brought a lot of investment to Pipa, the capital Natal, and other beaches.
The truth is that Pipa was the only one with more than one beautiful beach, a bunch of activities like surfing, beautiful cliffs for hiking and nearby tours to other towns. Tourists could stay in Pipa and take advantage of the restaurants, the nightlife (of course there was), the trips and tours and the overall pleasant ease of staying in Pipa. Backpackers from Israel, families from Sweden, professionals from Holland, all enjoyed all attractions that Pipa had to offer and the natural evolution was some of them started coming back year after year.
What makes a tourism destination
1) The natural attractions: There are many tourism destinations in Brazil and over the place but not every destination is established as well as Pipa is. The natural beauties of a place are essential after all that is what attracts people there. But that alone is not everything. Pipa has at least 7 beaches one after the other divided by bays, and each beach has different attractions. One is wild and good for surfing. The other is calm and has dolphins swimming nearby. The other is long, green and beautiful. And if you keep walking you get to other equally beautiful and deserted beaches.
Access to these beaches can be done by the beach but also through the road, but it’s the proximity of them and the variety that makes it a place with destinations within the destination. Tourists can visit and each day enjoy a different place.
Other than the beautiful beaches, in Pipa one can also enjoy the beautiful nature nearby. The tall cliffs provide a beautiful hike, the ecologic sanctuary also serves for that and for observing wild life. Nearby rivers provide a nice relaxation 10 minutes outside of the main village. All these different activities within ease reach help create a destination and in the social media age provide the background for countless pictures and hashtags.
The beaches today are different though. Growth brought along mass tourism and with the strong economy of the late 2000s, the currency appeal disapeared and along the foreign tourists. That gave way to local brazilian tourists and mass tourism from travel companies around Brazil. A few bad local administrations and greed of everyone trying to capitalize on the destinations growth changed the beaches from deserted places to “favelas” dotted with umbrellas and chairs by small restaurants on the sand. Praia do Madeiro one of the most beautiful beaches there now has more than 10 restaurants on a beach that is only accessible by stairs. That means that all the food, drinks and trash that goes down to be sold to tourists does not go up. The remaining trees and green area are now made of holes filled with left overs, umbrellas, coolers and cooking parafernalia. It’s amazing what a few years of bad administration did to the place.
Baía dos Golfinhos, 10 years ago empty and beautiful now also has permanent umbrellas and chairs and even though the tide from time to time comes up and washes it all away, they seem to hide their stuff on the cliffs and remaining trees.
2) The transportation structure: The supporting infrastructure is another important factor to establish any destination. How easy is it for people to get there. See, for Pipa, all it takes is a two hour trip by car from the Natal airport and you are there. Before, the international airport was even closer, sitting south of Natal. In 2008, by force of some politics it was decide that the state needed a new airport, so the main airport was built north of Natal, even far from Natal itself, and now the access takes longer than it should. Currently the amount of international and national flights that land there don’t justify the relocation of the airport. The justification was that with the upcoming World Cup and the Olympics, Brazil needed a larger infrastructure to receive all the tourists. These events passed and the existing airport could have handled that just fine and the tourists wouldn’t have to travel so much. Now, it’s even easier to fly to the Joao Pessoa airport and go to Pipa, than to fly to the Natal airport and have to traffic all the traffic that crosses right through the middle of the city of Natal. Moving the Natal airport was a very bad decision overall.
Transportation from the airport to Pipa is around 200 R$ so not so expensive, and can be done by taxi or private transportation. A thriving transportation industry is also available, with rental cars, and transfer providers.
Within the destination, vans transport people back and forth from the nearby towns where the workers live and tourists from the beaches outside of town, like Madeiro, one of the main beaches.
3) Stylish restaurants, serious gastronomy: From the beginning the people that chose that place to live created a few gastronomic options of excelent quality, plenty of variety and style. A tourism that is spending a few days at a place wants to try different things from what they eat every day, and Pipa provides that. The fresh seafood is available everywhere from the simple beach restaurants to the fancier restaurants on main avenue Baía dos Golfinhos. One can get italian food brought on by original italians, one can get delicious meat from nearby farms. Japanese food, delicious pizza, brazilian food with the obvious influences of the northeastern Brazil food of tapiocas, farofas, and others…
All these options plus the presence of international chefs created this environmental of great gastronomy that makes a tourist when planning to come want to do activities around that. Some tours specifically take tourists to eat and be part of a gastronomy ritual.
Pipa these days with the changed tourism presence offers more generic food options, though stylish dishes and unique cuisine are still present. Oba Yakissoba is a great option for healthy, full of vegetables and affordable option. Brazilian tourists that are most prevalent these days are price sensitive so the more generic All You Can Eat, and even chain franchises can be found, such as a Subway right on Avenida Dos Golfinhos.
4) A variety of places to stay: the older pousadas of Pipa are still where they were. Fancier options like Toca da Coruja still cater to that public. Pousada das Tartarugas conveniently located on the main avenue now has a few others just like it. Some pousadas evolved to offer more than just the stay, offering also bars and restaurants depending on their location. But one traditional pousada of Pipa, that really reinvented their business is Mirante de Pipa. The priviledged location overlooking the Pipa main beach allowed the owners to establish a sunset bar, that gets packed with tourists and their phones eager to share the beautiful sunset of Praia da Pipa.
The real estate boom of the 2000s gave way to condos and apartments not really available 10 years ago. But the need to make these properties profitable drove the building of townhouses, condos that take advantage of the space to pack as many units as possible. So these days, other than the hotels, and pousadas, it’s also possible to find houses and apartments for rent on AirBnB and other sites, and the competition between them drove the prices down. It’s possible to rent a house of 3 bedrooms for 80 R$ a night. A very inviting price for Brazilian tourists.
Pipa is still a great destination in 2019 altough now much larger, crowded and kinda looking like a city. Thankfully It will never be a city as the usable area is limited by the preservation area. It’s still very green and pleasant but the traditional characteristics of another era are mostly gone as current hotels and restaurants brought a more modern and generic feel to it. It feels as if the best times have passed and now, this is what’s left.
More insights about how to keep a destination great and the real estate scenario will come soon at another post.